Blaze Starr recalls burlesque era in new film

Once the Queen of Baltimore burlesque, Fannie Belle Fleming — better known as Blaze Starr — has been living the quiet life in rural West Virginia for more than 30 years now, far away from the blinking neon signs, barkers and strippers of The Block.

The Block was her venue, where she reigned supreme for more than 20 years. She is still fondly remembered by generations of gents, sans wife or girlfriend, traveling salesmen and servicemen all out for a night on the town, and for the rose petals that she gently blew across her ample bosom to admiring audiences from the runway of her Two O'Clock Club.

"Honey, I loved it but everything has its season," Starr said in a telephone interview the other day, not far from Twelve Pole Creek, W.Va., where she grew up in a family with 11 children.

Starr, who left home at age 15 in 1947, boarded a bus for Washington and went to work as a waitress in a doughnut shop.

After a friend took her to the Quonset Hut, a club near Quantico, Va., she began working as a stripper.

She told The Washington Post in a 1989 interview that the first time she appeared on stage she "burned with embarrassment, not shame."

"When she first took her brassiere off, a riot of noise rose from the audience, shaking dust from the ceiling, rattling the electric lights. All she had to do was move a little and the thunder boomed," the Post said.

She made her debut on the runway of the Two O'Clock Club in 1950.

"I still dream about it sometimes. I'm dressed and getting ready to go on stage and I can't find my gloves," said Starr, with a slight laugh, who just celebrated her 78th birthday.

After hanging up her G-string and pasties in 1975, Starr moved to a home in Oakland, Carroll County, where she launched a second career designing and making jewelry.

Until moving back home to an 80-acre family compound about 17 years ago to care for her mother and a brother, both of whom have since died, Starr was a regular at Carrolltowne Mall in Eldersburg to sell her jewelry. Today, she and her brother, Ben, sell the jewelry through her website.

Several weeks ago, Starr was mentioned in a New York Times review of "Behind the Burly Q," a documentary chronicling the history of burlesque that was written and directed by Leslie Zemeckis.

Zemeckis is married to Robert Zemeckis, the Hollywood director, screenwriter and producer who won Oscars for "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" and "Forrest Gump."

She also appeared in two of his films, "Beowulf" and "The Polar Express," and for the past several years, has produced and performs as Staar in a one-woman burlesque show.

Zemeckis and her fellow producers Sheri Hellard and Jackie Levine interviewed veteran strippers, musicians and others from the golden era of burlesque.

One of the "vets" they interviewed was Blaze Starr, who is mentioned in the New York Times article. Starr does not appear in film, but rather as "a voice on a telephone, a ghostly presence."

"I guess it was two or three years ago that Leslie wrote me a fan letter and asked for a picture. I sent her some pictures," Starr said. "She is such a beautiful woman."

The two women began regularly talking on the phone and exchanging birthday and Christmas cards.

"Then we started writing. I think she was probably somewhat in awe of me," said Starr, with a laugh. "I then sold her some of my old wardrobe including one of my favorite dresses, which was a black gown with a red stone."

The bond between the two women, who have never met, has grown over the years.

"Leslie told me that she was married to a Hollywood producer and I guess it was a couple of years ago, she called and said she was making a documentary on burlesque," Starr said.

"She'd call and interviewe me on tape. We talked and talked until she got my life's history. I was very flattered and honored," Starr said.

Starr said that she also wrote songs, often after the breakup of a relationship.

"One day Leslie called and said she had run across my song, '38 double-D."'

(Starr's breast size, from which the song takes its name, was once a highly sought-after piece of information that those pledging local college fraternities were required to obtain.)

"I sang it to her and she asked, is it copyrighted and could she use it in her movie. I felt so flattered that she wanted to use it. She also assured me that it wouldn't wind up on the cutting-room floor," Starr said.

"It was copyrighted, so she sent me $100, so I guess I'm now a paid composer as well," she said.

"By the 1970s, pornography had caught up with The Block, where performers were totally in the nude. I wasn't going to do that, and I certainly wasn't about to let my girls do it," she said. "After all, I'm religious, and if my mother knew I was performing in the nude, she would have had a heart attack."

In the end, Starr stopped performing and closed the club.

"I owned the building where the Two O'Clock Club is and I paid it off 40 years ago. I keep hearing gambling is coming to town along with Donald Trump. Maybe he'll be interested in it," she said.

Now, Starr says, she enjoys the simple life.

"I don't get dressed up anymore. I wear jeans and Reeboks and like to go four-wheeling with my brother. I don't drive anymore. We go to the top of the mountain and like howling at the moon," she said, with a soft laugh.

"I haven't had a drink in over six years. I remember when I was at the club. I'd have a little drink, get happy, and then go and do a good show," she said.

In recent years, Starr has had some heart problems and is now recovering from several cracked vertebrae.

"I've had so many procedures, that if they keep doing them, I may wind up being 16 again," she said laughing.

"Behind the Burly Q" will premiere at the Charles Theatre May 28. Starr regrets that she won't be able to be in the audience.

"I don't get to Baltimore much anymore. I'm hoping I can see it out here but the nearest theater to my house is 90 miles away, near Charleston," she said.

"I think I was good at what I did," Starr said reflectively. "But now, I like looking up and down the creek and the holler. I live the simple life down here."

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